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Angela Merkel, in her congratulatory message to Donald Trump after his election victory, struck a reminder of the values connecting Germany and America: “democracy, freedom and respect for the law and the dignity of man.” Merkel alluded to the so-called Wertegemeinschaft, or community of values, that many politicians and citizens of Western countries frequently invoke. The term not only implies that the world has by and large converged on shared values, but also that these values are enshrined in the international political and economic system. The mainstream views the global order as a reflection of the shared values. This in turn makes it regard the international system as fundamentally just and without any real alternative. While problems such as poverty and climate change are acknowledged, solutions are to be sought primarily in better planning, implementation and cooperation.

The defenders of the status quo divide the world into “good” and “bad” – those who play along the rules of the international system and those who don’t. The Economist is the best example of a publication that sees the global system and the liberal values as mirror images of one other. Pick up any issue of The Economist and you’ll realize that – beyond the rhetoric of shared values – it’s above all the creation of wealth and the pursuit of money that define this worldview. Progress-oriented, more-is-better thinking is so deeply entrenched within the mainstream that to doubt it is considered heresy.

I think that the system-value conflation is wrong, self-serving and harmful to peace, justice, equality and a healthy planet. I believe that the mainstream media reflect this conflation and are thus ill-equipped to uncover the structural problems of a system that in fact produces few winners and many losers. The reality as experienced by the losers – marginalized communities, people of color, unskilled workers, low-income populations, war-torn regions, economic migrants, refugees, Planet Earth etc. – is bleak. But the dominant opinion views their hopelessness and despair as isolated issues to be solved by tweaking the system a little bit.

Suddenly, after Trump and Brexit, even the mainstream is waking up to the crisis various people, communities and regions have been experiencing in different ways for decades. The predictable reaction usually includes urging the non-winners to renew their faith in the system. For the mainstream to ponder the possibility of a systematic origin of the crisis is unthinkable since they have already professed to the alternativelessness of the status quo. That the current system might not after all reflect and promote the cherished principles of liberty, freedom and equality does not occur to anybody who plays a part and has an interest in upholding the current order.

Mainstream opinion and analysis seem genuinely surprised about the current crisis. They have not seen this one coming and wonder how 70 years of growth, prosperity and peace could possibly culminate in crisis. What they fail to realize is that the post-World War II international order has for many always been a deeply flawed, unsustainable and unjust arrangement destined for collapse.

Chief among the charges critics have leveled against the global system is the obsession with growth or, more specifically, the assumption of unlimited economic growth. How exactly is the aggregate economy to grow forever in a limited ecosystem? The absence of discussion of an optimal scale of the aggregate economy is indicative of the irrational, unsustainable obsession with growth. This obsession is also reflected in the singular importance we attach to GDP, a number better thought of as a statistical deception hiding social and ecological costs and ignoring the value of unpaid work. A GDP increase does not tell us whether the people have actually become better off.

The system has failed most dramatically in sustaining the health of our planet. Environmental indicators across the board reveal the damage on the environment, the most epoch-defining, far-reaching and devastating impact being climate change. Climate change will hit poor countries in the global South hardest. This is greatly unjust for these countries have almost no responsibility for the CO2 level in the atmosphere. Worse, this injustice follows after centuries of discrimination by the West that that continues to this day.

Whereas the West locates its triumph in the ideas of the Enlightenment, non-Western countries see in the awakening of Europe the beginning of their subjugation and exploitation. Colonialism made possible the Industrial Revolution and established a global Master-Slave relationship that has not ended with the former colonies’ independence. The United States, in particular, has from the end of the Second World War to the present continually sought to exert mastery over other countries – through invasion (e.g. Vietnam, Iraq), toppling leaders (e.g. Iran, Chile), propping up its chosen man (e.g. Indonesia) or military aid (e.g. Yemen). We are told this has been necessary to uphold the liberal international order. Critics have pointed out that narrowly-defined economic interests have always been at the core of America’s wars. There is no denying that the international order and America’s economic interests are Siamese twins.

Wars, global and domestic inequalities, climate change – these are but some of the ugly faces of the global order. But if the international system has and continues to produce these terrible costs we must change the system itself. We must name the ‘alternativelessness’ as the self-serving lie that it is, abandon the neoliberal project and stop extractivism. For that to happen we need to enter into a new relationship with each other as well as nature. And, to do that, we need to really talk about spirituality, ideals and values.

The metaphysical is not optional but at the very core of positive change. Consider the example of the abolitionists. They understood, according to historian David Brion Davis, that they were tasked not only with banning an abhorrent practice, but more fundamentally with changing the deeply entrenched values that had made slavery acceptable in the first place. They realized that their ultimate task was to bring about a major transformation in moral perception. Martin Luther King, in his famous Riverside Church speech condemning the Vietnam War, but with racial inequality never far from his mind, similarly urged the nation to undergo a “radical revolution of values.” He saw the Vietnam War as a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit and called for a shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society and, more radically, an “all-embracing and unconditional love for all of mankind.”

Martin Luther King was unafraid to talk of uncompromised transcendental ideals because he understood that the ills of the world are first and foremost of spiritual origin. It is for this insight, and for the uncompromising alignment of the personal and the political, that he is recognized today, together with Gandhi, as one of the great leaders of the past century.

E.F. Schumacher, the iconoclastic and far-sighted author of Small is Beautiful, observed that, “no one is really working for peace unless they are working primarily for the restoration of wisdom.” If we confront ourselves truthfully and engage in foundational thinking about what we believe in about ourselves, our lives and the world, we will, he said, come to recognize the hollowness and unsatisfactoriness of materialism. The neglect of the spiritual, coupled with the relentless pursuit of material ends, Schumacher said, “necessarily sets man against man and nation against nation, because man’s needs are infinite and infinitude can be achieved only in the spiritual realm, never in the material.” He made these claims more than 50 years ago, well before the onslaught of neoliberalism that has further cemented greed and envy as pillars of the system.

To bring about meaningful change to the global system we first need a revolution of the spirit. Instead there seems to be a huge reluctance to engage in spiritual reflection and committing to transcendental ideals. Has moral thinking become old-fashioned and too burdensome? Are we altogether too skeptical and post-modern to find meaning in Gandhi’s dictum that Truth is the greatest religion? Fine, let there be multiple truths and yes, history shows the danger of imposing one’s truths on other people. But there is perhaps an equally great danger of shying away from seeking out what connects as beings on this earth and making this the ethical foundation for change.

Jakob Terwitte is currently doing a Master’s in China Studies at Peking University’s Yenching Academy. He holds a German passport, a BA in Political Science from Middlebury College and a MSc in Political Theory from the LSE. He’s interested in systems of oppression; critical approaches and theories that help make sense of these; the global economic system’s impact on the climate; social movements’ strategies in effecting political change; and workable alternatives to the current system.

One Comment

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    The ‘ values’ supported and cherished by people are different from the rulers. So, the German ruler expressing support to a value system cherished by US is not very surprising. What is needed is ‘ change’ of thinking of rulers from ‘ their perspective to ‘ peoples’ vision of values. That is, revolution of values should begin from thinking of rulers